Musical theater mixes song with story to engage, entertain, and inspire audiences — and it’s been doing so for nearly three centuries. The first “Broadway” theater, the Theatre on Nassau Street, opened in New York City in 1750, with shows like The Beggar’s Opera and other examples of the ballad opera, a precursor to the modern musical. Though it’s considered the first venue purpose-built for musical theater, it was located in downtown Manhattan, before New York’s theater district moved north to its current geographical location in Midtown, centered around the Broadway thoroughfare.
Much has changed since those inaugural shows, and Manhattan’s dazzling Broadway district is now lined with over 40 theaters. Musical theater evolved from glitzy spectaculars to a powerful form of storytelling — and both then and now, there is nothing else quite like a Broadway musical. Throughout the genre’s growth, musical theater’s most important inspirational pillars remain, from lyrics packed with life lessons to emotion-driven melodies, and they’re woven into nearly all new and classic tales.
Take the 2003 smash hit Wicked, where the character Elphaba inspires audiences to take risks and dream about the future with these lyrics from the powerful “Defying Gravity”: “It’s time to trust my instincts, close my eyes and leap!” In 1986’s The Phantom of the Opera, the longest-running Broadway show, fans are equally swept away by a captivating and timeless love story. Shows like West Side Story and Chicago further profile the human experience, telling tales of grandeur, success, failure, and hardship through compelling characters that overcome these obstacles through song, dance, and story.
For motivation, music, joy, and jokes, here are 20 of the most inspiring Broadway musical lyrics of all time.
Some things I cannot change,
But till I try, I'll never know!
– “Defying Gravity,” "Wicked"
I’m laughin’ in the face of casualties and sorrow,
For the first time, I’m thinkin’ past tomorrow.
– “My Shot,” "Hamilton"
Turn your thoughts away,
From cold unfeeling light,
And listen to the music of the night.
– “Music of the Night,” "Phantom of the Opera"
For under every mean veneer,
Is someone warm and dear.
– “Little Bit of Good,” "Chicago"
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience.
– “Moments of Happiness,” "Cats"
Even when your life is in knots,
You take aim, take your shot,
Sometimes, you've got to rewrite the plot.
– “Take What You Got,” "Kinky Boots"
The truth that once was spoken:
To love another person is to see the face of God.
– “Finale,” "Les Misérables"
Somewhere we'll find a new way of living,
We'll find a way of forgiving.
– “Somewhere,” "West Side Story"
The sun’ll come out tomorrow.
– “Tomorrow,” "Annie"
And I’m thankful for every day that I’m given,
Both the easy and hard ones I’m livin’.
– “I’m Here,” "The Color Purple"
It isn’t where I am,
It’s only where I’ll go from here.
– “Times Are Hard for Dreamers,” "Amelie"
In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee,
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife,
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes,
How do you measure a year in the life?
– “Seasons of Love,” "Rent"
When the dog bites,
When the bee stings,
When I’m feeling sad,
I simply remember my favorite things,
And then I don’t feel so bad.
– “My Favorite Things,” "The Sound of Music"
And this present will be past so here we are,
Where the world has come together.
– “Stop the World,” "Come From Away"
What I thought was so permanent fades,
In the blink of an eye, there’s a new life in front in my face,
And I know in due time, every right thing will find its right place.
– “Everything Changes,” "Waitress"
But I say: Why invite stress in?
Stop studying strife,
And learn to live the unexamined life.
– “Dancing Through Life,” "Wicked"
Even the darkest night will end,
And the sun will rise.
– “Finale,” "Les Misérables"
Even when the dark comes crashing through,
When you need a friend to carry you,
And when you're broken on the ground,
You will be found.
– "You Will Be Found," "Dear Evan Hansen"
And you find some way to survive,
And you find out you don't have to be happy at all,
To be happy you're alive.
– "Light," "Next to Normal"
Things will come out right now,
We can make it so,
Someone is on your side,
No one is alone.
– "No One Is Alone," "Into the Woods"
Photo credit: Simon Fergusson/ Stringer/ Getty Images